Hebrews 13:10-16 (NIV) 10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
My dear friends in Christ,
How many of you have ever been up here, inside the rail, close enough to touch the altar? Does that make you a little nervous? That’s not something we normally do. Sometimes, especially after church, children like to sneak away from mom and dad. They head straight for the front of church. They climb up the steps, stand on the cushion, swing under the rail, even walk up to the altar and touch it. What’s our very first reaction? Often, it’s a little bit of nervous fear. I can still hear my parents telling me, “Don’t go up there! Don’t touch those things! This is God’s house!”
That’s not a new feeling. It goes all the way back to Old Testament times. When God’s people came to worship, walls kept them away from the temple building. They could see through the large doorway into the courtyard, but no one entered the temple gate except the priests and the Levites.
Through the doorway the crowd could see the huge altar. The altar for burnt sacrifice was 30 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 15 feet high! Fire constantly burned there, tended by the Levites, ready for any burnt offerings that God required. Only the priestly family could be here in this area. For the rest of the people it was, “Don’t go in there! Don’t touch! This is God’s house!”
God’s people had even less access to the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Priests were chosen by lot to enter the Holy Place and burn incense on the altar. So, only a few could enter this room. A long curtain separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The Lord had commanded Moses, “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover” (Leviticus 16:2 NIV). Once more the message was, “Don’t go in there! Don’t touch! This is God’s house!”
Once a year, on the Great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), God allowed the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies. He couldn’t just walk in. The high priest had to sacrifice a bull for his own sins. Then he could enter and sprinkle that blood on the ark of the covenant. Then he would sacrifice a goat for the sins of the people. He took the goat’s blood and sprinkled it on the ark of the covenant. “In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (Leviticus 16:16 NIV).
Once the sacrifices had been made, God gave the priest a final command. “The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up” (Leviticus 16:27 NIV). God gave the people more visual evidence that their sins had been taken away. God’s warning didn’t go away. “Don’t go up there! Don’t touch! This is God’s house!”
Why couldn’t the Israelites go in and touch? Why do we still feel that separation today? God wants us to understand the difference between him and us. God is perfect. God is holy. God is just. We are the opposite. We are imperfect, unholy, and we don’t deal fairly with each other. Today was National School Walkout Day. Students across the US demonstrated at 10 AM for 17 minutes in honor of those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The students are asking lawmakers to do something about gun violence and shootings in our schools. I hear their calls for gun control. I hear the families’ pleas to do something. My heart aches as I listen and watch. It aches because our children are afraid to go to school. Why all the violence? Why do people misuse guns? Isn’t it because we are all sinners? Violence happens in our schools, on the streets, and in our homes because sinful hearts are rotten to the core. Students cause hurt by ignoring others, or calling them hurtful names. Adults are tempted to do the same. If someone doesn’t fit in, we cut them out. Sometimes that hurt erupts in violence. It’s wrong. It’s all wrong. We need a solution. Laws might help for a little while, but they will never get to the heart of the matter—sin infects us all, and we can’t change that! That’s why we get nervous at the front of church. We feel like we’re getting closer to God’s presence, but our hearts separate us from him. God knows. That’s why in the Old Testament he had the high priest enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of a goat. Blood paid for sin!
Sadly, it was never enough. The high priest had to make the same sacrifice in the same way, year after year. The altar outside the temple continued to blaze. Sacrifices burned, and the smell rose to heaven. It was never enough! That’s why God sent Jesus, our great, perfect, compassionate, self-sacrificing high priest. Jesus took a different sacrifice to a different altar in order to pay for our sins. “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12 NIV).
Can you see him—the high priest who is at the same time sacrificial lamb—carrying his cross through the streets? He shuffles and stumbles under its weight. Soldiers pull Simon of Cyrene out of the crowd. Simon carried Jesus’ cross outside the city walls. Finally, they arrive at the Place of the Skull. Simon dropped Jesus cross on the ground. Soldiers stretch Jesus out on the rough wood. The hammer rings as nails bite into Jesus hands and feet. They plant the tree in the ground. Here is our altar. It’s different from the one in the temple court. It’s the altar where our great High Priest offers himself. His blood covers more than wood and dust. It covers us. It covers our sins. Our sins are all out there, outside the city wall. Jesus has taken them away so that they are, as our children heard in chapel this morning, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12 NIV).
We can see it all through the eyes of faith. Jesus calls us to do more than just see this altar of the cross. “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13–14 NIV). God wants us to come forward, to touch this altar, to be with him. There’s nothing to fear up here in the front of church or anywhere else! Jesus wants us to come. He wants us to spend time with him. Be ready, because it’s not an easy place to be. Sometimes we have to “bear the disgrace Jesus bore.” When stand at the altar of the cross, when we are washed in the blood of the Lamb, we have to face the mocking, jeering crowds too. We talk about sin and the world calls us “intolerant.” We talk about punishment and people reject that thought because “God is love.” We know that one day we will live in an “enduring city,” and we face ridicule for believing in “fairy tales.”
Is it worth it to go outside the city gate and bear the same disgrace Jesus bore? It is, because we have a place waiting for us. This world is not going to last. The universe with all its secrets, its black holes, and galaxies far, far away will come to an end. Jesus has prepared a better place, a perfect place for us. It’s a city that will never see night, doors won’t be locked, gun violence and protests won’t take place, no more tears, no more pain, and best of all, no more death!
The author of Hebrews tied these thoughts together in verse 15: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (Hebrews 13:15 NIV). How can we offer that sacrifice of praise? We might participate in something like National Walkout Day. The students who walked out today have a voice to express their fears and their need for safety. That is a positive way to express ourselves. As we participate, we can let our faith shine. Even as we call for changes in laws, we can share God’s call for change in peoples’ hearts. I saw this encouragement that a teacher posted this morning: “National School Walk UP. What can you do? Walk UP to the kid who sits ALONE and ask him to join your group. Walk UP to the kid who never has a voluntary partner and offer to be hers. Walk UP to your teachers and thank them! Walk UP to someone and JUST BE NICE!”
We can help the people around us by being Jesus’ hands and feet. We can lead people to the altar of Jesus’ cross and show them that they don’t need to be afraid. We can show God’s love to everyone around us.
Should we be nervous about coming up front? No! We treat this area of the church with respect because this is God’s house, but we never need to be afraid. Jesus took our punishment on the altar of the cross. Our high priest gave his life on that altar so that we can find forgiveness and eternal life. Keep on praising him for that incredible gift!